Racism, Pakistan, & Jane Austen: Nonfiction Reading Round-Up

Although my reading project for not being a dumb American is only about Africa, I do read other nonfiction books that I don’t tell you about. Ordinarily I let it slide past without comment, but as I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately (a mood came upon me!), I thought I’d share some of my findings.

Finding the First: Pakistan is an acronym.

“But Jenny why didn’t you know that already? Everyone knows that!” you may say. To which I have no response but embarrassment. I also only recently learned that scuba is an acronym. It was a weird acronym-y week, that week.

Because yes! As originally proposed, Pakistan was to stand for the proposed territories it would contain: Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and BaluchisTAN. (I know; the last bit’s lame.) Then somebody noticed that if you tossed an I in the middle of that, it would mean Land of the Pure in Urdu, so they ran with it.

Midnight's Furies

Everything else I learned from Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition was horribly depressing. For our purposes here, I’ll just say that although this sounds like bullshit colonialism, legitimately it seems to be true that rushing to independence before the structures to support independence are in place is an awful, awful idea. Cf. Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is my working hypothesis and I will keep you posted on how it stands up to further scrutiny going forward.

Finding the Second: We should bring back mourning attire.

Not, I mean, like not fully. John Mullan’s excellent What Matters in Jane Austen takes up twenty rather unexpected questions about how Jane Austen signals information in her books and what that means, and one of them is “Who dies in the course of her novels?” Very few people, is the answer, but another part of the answer is that while not many deaths occur in the course of her novels, the presence of death and mourning attire is omnipresent.

The relief of [recovery from illness] is something that we can hardly feel any more. it gives us some idea of how our usually comfortable distinction between trivial and serious ailments was much less secure.

I don’t think people should wear only black for a year after their loved one dies. But if maybe we could have something, some outward sign that you could choose to wear if you wanted to that would say I am not okay, handle with care. I know the answer is that we should treat everyone as if their spouse just died, but, you know what? I am not a saint and I cannot be nice to everyone 100% of the time, and neither can you, so let’s talk real with each other about it.

What Matters in Jane Austen

Finding the Third: I need to read a nonfiction book about what it’s like to be a Mormon missionary. Someone like Marilyn Johnson or Alexandra Robbins should hop on that, because I think it would be amazing.

Edited by Stephanie Wu, The Roommates collects stories of awful roommates, which is as fun as you’d imagine. But also, it’s clear that Stephanie Wu just asked all her friends to ask all their friends if they had any good roommate stories. The diversity is . . . not so much. My favorite story was about the narrator’s Mormon mission year, and it made me want a book about Mormon missionaries and their lives. Let’s make it happen.

Finding the Fourth: Literally everyone in all of American history (except Ida B. Wells) was terrible. Ida B. Wells is maybe the only human in the history of this nation who wasn’t hot garbage.

Jabari Asim’s book The N Word has the subtitle Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why, which sounds like it’s a more sociological take on the word. That would have been fascinating, but Asim does something that’s (maybe?) even more fascinating, which is to contextualize the n-word historically. He goes through the ways it was deployed in science, arts, and culture from before the Civil War up to the present day.

The N Word

It’s a really good book, and Asim is a thoughtful critic of culture and history. If you can tolerate a full-length book of everyone being terrible, this is a good one to go with.

Correct assessment.

This has been some of the nonfiction I’ve been plowing through recently. I will return you to your regularly scheduled fiction programming hereafter.

  • Simon T (StuckinaBook.com)

    I totally did NOT know that Pakistan was an acronym, and am now wondering if everybody else except us did know.

  • helen from a gallimaufry

    I didn’t know that about Pakistan either!

    Also, I do like your suggestion that we wear black/something to send out ‘handle with care’ messages to those around us EXCEPT that I would totally abuse it and wear black/something all the time so people were always very nice to me and never crossed me. I don’t believe I’d be alone in this either. Sorry.

    I’d like to read The N Word.

    • But I don’t think abusing the power would be all that terrible. I also don’t think people would abuse it that much, at least not adults. It feels too much like a jinx. Don’t you think?

  • Nice roundup! especially because I myself can’t bear to read any more books on colonialism because they can make a person super depressed….

    • Oh they really can. But I am meanwhile incredibly fascinated by colonialism and the problems it causes, so I continue to plow through books about it.

  • AlyceR

    I love anything having to do with word origins and think it’s fascinating that Pakistan is an acronym, obviously I didn’t know that either!

    • Oo, me too. Etymology is my favorite. I always get super excited when I discover a new word etymology.

  • Another person who didn’t know that Pakistan is an acronym!

  • Wow, thank you for enlightening me about the fact that Pakistan is an acronym — I had no idea!

  • Lizzi

    Fantastic post – love non-fiction!

    • Me too! I was on a nonfiction-only kick for a while, and even now I feel like keeping plenty of nonfiction in my reading diet. There’s so much to learn!

  • JeanPing

    Also did not know that. And Partition is possibly one of the most awful, depressing subjects there is to read about (says the woman who has just read a small pile of books about Stalin and the gulag). I’m scared to go there yet.

    Mormon missionary books? I think there is a fairly new one out there that might do some of what you’re looking for. I’ll go look for it, brb. There was a movie about 10-15 years ago called (somewhat humorously) God’s Army that pretty much gave my husband flashbacks, you could see if you can find it.

    • JeanPing

      Ta-da! Review of book I was thinking of: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2014/08/book-review-way-below-the-angels/ Julie, the reviewer, is smart as a whip, I tell you what. I kinda knew her in college and now we both homeschool in the WTM classical style, so I run into her online. In fact she won an academic prize last week! Go Julie!

      However the book is about serving a mission in the 1970s. So, not now. Now there are more cell phones.

      • JeanPing

        Another review: http://bycommonconsent.com/2014/06/30/the-tale-of-a-mission-40-years-later/ I like this one because it says “…and the prospect of ever having to do anything like it again haunted his dreams for years.” And my husband has those dreams too. (I didn’t go on a mission so I only have scary college dreams)

      • See! I should have come straight to you with this question! Thank you for the recommendation, I will definitely check that book out. There was one small detail about Mormon mission trips in the roommates book that just made me so curious to know what it’s LIKE to do that kind of thing. I…suspect I would go insane. I need a lot of alone time.

        Meanwhile, I’ve never read a thing about Stalin and his gulags. One of these days.

        • JeanPing

          Now I want to know what detail it was. And a mission is really hard work. The lack of alone time was indeed the hardest thing about it for my very hermity husband. (Sorry to witter on about him; I actually know zillions of people who have served missions everyplace you can think of but I know his best.) Ask me stuff anytime.

  • Christy

    I did not know that about Pakistan, and if I knew that scuba was an acronym, I’d forgotten. The Jane Austen book sounds like an interesting read!

  • Alley

    Pakistan is an acronym whaaaa?

  • Two paragraphs in and you have blown my mind!! I don’t know if I can finish reading the post. I’ve lost my ability to process new information.

  • No seriously though…I tried to continue and read “morning attire” and was all hell yeah pjs all day! and then you were talking about death and I realized I missed the “u”.

  • I had nooooo idea Pakistan was an acronym. Mind: blown.

  • I have Hajari’s book on my list read. But I am nervous about it too because a lot of subject matter about the Partition end up being biased. I have high hopes for this one.

  • Marisa

    I want to read Midnight Furies and The N Word. And I didn’t know that Pakistan was an acronym, and my grandmother came from there. Not only do I feel embarrassed for not knowing; I feel a need to read up more about all the things I don’t know.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Wow, I had no idea about Pakistan being an acronym! That lack of knowledge makes me feel really stupid. But I have been enlightened on the front–thank you!–I can now move on to being stupid about something else. 🙂

  • Aarti

    I need to read Asim’s The N Word. I have it on my audiobook queue, but I think hearing the word out loud so much would make me flinch constantly.

    You should REEEEEEEEEALLY read Asim’s fiction.